Joseph Hastings, at 19, is a lieutenant with the Chesterville Fire Department. He’s also one of the younger members of the Farmington Fire Department.

Patty Cormier is Farmington’s only female member.

Neither fits the demographic of the typical Maine firefighter — there are few female firefighters in Maine, and the average age of Farmington’s department is 49, which is about the same as the state average.

While departments seek more volunteers, the two came into firefighting because they wanted to do it, not because of any active recruitment efforts.

Cormier said when she first asked to join a fire department, in Washington County, she was told about an auxiliary group that made cookies.

“I said, ‘No, I want to be a firefighter.’ And then my husband said, ‘Well if she joins, then I’ll join,’ so they got two.”

Cormier said because it’s a job that can involve heavy physical labor, she is not surprised that more men than women are interested. Her day job as a district forester with the Maine Forest Service is also a field with more men than women, but in either field, being a woman isn’t a problem.

“What it comes down to is if you can do the job and they can rely on you, you’ll do all right,” she said.

Hastings started first with Chesterville when he was 18, 10 days after he graduated high school. His cousin Ed Hastings was the chief, and he said the decision to join was “kind of a spur of the moment thing.”

“But I fell right in love with it,” he said.

He didn’t realize he was getting paid for his on-call work in Chesterville until he got his first check.

“I was like, ‘what is this?'” he said.

Hastings said he wants to make a career out of firefighting and excitedly talks about helping design the department’s recently ordered new truck, and about new technology they’ve adopted, like a system that members know who is responding to dispatches. “We’re trying to turn the department around and bring it into the 21st century,” he said.

Despite his enthusiasm, Hastings said the time commitment is heavy.

There’s the annual Bureau of Labor standards training. Getting Firefighter I and II certification took about 160 hours. With training and meetings for both departments on Tuesdays, he said,”I haven’t had a free Tuesday in a year and a half.”

• • • • • •

With fewer than 70 residents, the northern Somerset County town of Caratunk can’t support its own fire department.

Instead, it contracts out for about $9,000 a year for fire protection from Bingham, which is 16 miles to the south.

In November, the first structure fire in years tore through town. Residents had to watch for nearly half an hour as two houses burned to the ground while they waited for fire crews to arrive. The fire had almost spread to the post office before enough firefighters from Bingham, Solon, West Forks and Jackman arrived to control it, about 25 firefighters in all.

The remote area, Bingham Fire Chief Scott Laweryson said at the time, is a challenge to cover with long distances between neighboring fire departments.

“It’s a 20-minute ride for us. By the time we get toned, the fire had a pretty good head start. It had a pretty good head start before anyone could see it,” he said.

A passerby on U.S. Route 201 had first spotted the fire and then laid on his horn to alert others.

Main Street resident Mandy Farrar described the next day how she called 911 and then she and other residents watched the buildings burn and the fire creep closer to the town’s post office.

Marie Beane, another resident who called 911, with her husband, tried to use a garden hose to save the post office as they waited for firefighters to arrive, but it was frozen.

The town has no hydrant system, so firefighters had to relay water from the Kennebec River and a nearby stream. Farrar said she saw one tanker drafting water from a stream near her house.

While the two houses were destroyed, the post office, which is the center of town activities and a stopping point for Appalachian Trail hikers, was saved.

“They did a great job,” Farrar said of the volunteer fire crews. “They went above and beyond the call of duty.”

• • • • • •

 

Up until last year, the China Village Fire Department used a modified milk truck as a tanker.

“The tank came from a milk truck in the ’70s,” said Chief Tim Theriault.

But the truck didn’t have baffles, the steel plates that help keep the water from sloshing around, and was not in compliance. The department finally found a used tank truck for sale in upstate New York for $34,000 and replaced the old one last February.

The three fire departments in China — South China, Weeks Mills and China Village — are independently incorporated from the town and only get money for operations, not vehicles. Theriault said the department raises money for purchases with donations, fundraising and grants.

He said the department doesn’t have plans to try to restructure the unusual arrangement.

“We’ve discussed it a bit. If we were having a hard time, we might try,” he said. “Other than manpower, we’re doing all right. That’s my biggest problem.”

In Madison and Skowhegan, Chief Shawn Howard said the fire department does extensive training because its members are called to anything that is not specifically a police call.

They’ve responded to horses stuck in the mud, children stuck in trees, industrial accidents with people stuck in machinery, and a snow groomer accident.

“There’s an old saying that a bucket of waste out fell of the sky and nobody knew what to do, so the first call is going to be the fire department,” he said.

• • • • • •

In Waterville, the radio call came, repeatedly, over several minutes.

“Can anyone drive a cascade truck?”

At least twice in the past year when the alarm went out, Waterville dispatchers have sought a firefighter to drive one of the specialized trucks, which also replenishes firefighter air packs, but no one was available.

At a June fire in Clinton, no one could be found to drive the truck. The firefighters who are trained and insured to drive the truck were out of town or on vacation. The truck wasn’t critical to the call, but it could have been.

David LaFountain, chief of the Waterville and Winslow fire departments, said problems with finding a cascade truck driver are just a small piece of a larger manpower shortage. While the two communities have full-time departments, they also rely on surrounding volunteer departments for help.

“That’s just a small symptom,” he said. “In the old days, we put out a fire without having to call another community. Now, especially on weekdays from 7 to 5, everyone is hurting for people to show up.”


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